On a visit five years ago to the Delhi factory of the fashion house Seema Gujral, Aisha Rawji fell in love with a swatch of white net fabric adorned with embroidery, pearls and sequins. As an Indian American fashion designer who had grown up in Los Angeles on a steady diet of Hollywood’s romantic comedies, it spoke to her.
It was part of a lehenga, a South Asian outfit composed of a skirt and a blouse, and it was white, the color that many Muslim women like Ms. Rawji wear to get married. But “there was something about the embroidery that felt like a Western bridal gown,” she said.
“I said, ‘When I get married, that is going to be what I was going to wear.’”
Ultimately Ms. Rawji, who is 31 and lives in Los Angeles, did not wear the lehenga for her wedding to Afzal Jasani in October 2022 — she wore a custom moss green number with silver sequins. But her sister, Sasha Rawji, did. And it is now the top-selling lehenga at Ms. Rawji’s South Asian boutique, Kynah, which began doing e-commerce in 2017 before opening a store in Los Angeles.
South Asian weddings have become a culture unto themselves. While they vary by factors like region and religion, these events can conjure up images of highly embellished outfits, endless buffets, lengthy ceremonies and extensive guest lists that climb into the thousands.
But many young South Asian Americans — especially those who grew up in the United States or choose to marry someone of a non-South Asian background — have been planning weddings that represent their dual identities. They freely blend and modernize traditions, with reception playlists that mix Bad Bunny and Bollywood, and ceremonies that feature “I dos” alongside garland exchanges. Their outfits often look nothing like the ones their parents wore.
“There is more comfort and confidence in that duality,” said Sushma Dwivedi, a pandit whose ceremonies interpret Hindu scripture through a progressive lens. The couples, she said, are conveying, “‘I am just as Indian as I am American.’”
As a result, an entire industry has emerged to meet these sensibilities.
In 2020,Ms. Rawjibegan selling bridal wear at her boutique, from South Asian designers who embraced less conventional colors and silhouettes, like Aisha Rao, Papa Don’t Preach and Amit Aggarwal. Instead of staging photo shoots in India, Kynah’s models posed in lehengas on the steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and inside a mansion in the Hollywood Hills.
The clothes struck a chord. From 2020 to 2021, the shop’s sales shot up 650 percent. Kynah now earns what it did in all of 2020 in less than a month, Ms. Rawji said, adding that some Indian designers are even following certain Western trends, like slit skirts.
Shubhika Sharma, the founder of Papa Don’t Preach in Mumbai, said the bulk of her customers are South Asian American. Her company is known for outfits like jumpsuits and belted lehengas that are popular among brides. She rarely designs in red, a traditional color for Hindu brides.
“This is my version of what it means to be Desi,” a South Asian person living abroad, Ms. Sharma said. “It gave them a language which wasn’t very steeped in nostalgia.”
Many South Asian wedding planners in the United States said these hybrid approaches have increasingly become the norm.
Elizabeth Priya Kumar, who runs Premini Events from New York City, has planned South Asian weddings where no Indian food is served; where the imam incorporates personalized vows, which are not traditional to Muslim weddings, into the ceremony; or where the sangeet, a night of music and dancing before the wedding, has taken place around a pool or in a cave.
“We don’t call the sangeet a sangeet,” she said. “We have called it a rave in a cave.”
Growing up in an Indian Christian household in Union, N.J., Ms. Kumar mostly attended church weddings, and when she began her career, “I was really insecure,” she said. “I didn’t feel Indian enough to plan an Indian wedding.”
But she soon realized there were many South Asian Americans who felt the same way. Her approach, she said, “is almost a way for the American-born Indian kid to still be in touch with their roots because, for some of us, there might not be a reason to go back to India because there is nobody left in India for us.”
“It is, generationally, going to help bridge that gap,” she said of the wedding.
Manraj, 38, and Sharon Parmar, 37, celebrated their wedding in October 2020 in Moosic, Pa., with a sangeet whose pink décor and palm trees evoked the Beverly Hills Hotel. The couple, who live in Manhattan, danced to both the Bollywood song “Suit Suit” and a Haley Reinhart cover of “Can’t Help Falling in Love.”
But because their families are Sikh from Punjab, India, they wanted a traditional Sikh ceremony. Mr. Parmar, who works in health care, wore a turban and grew his beard out, while the brothers of Ms. Parmar, who works in sales, guided her as she encircled the Guru Granth Sahib, a sacred Sikh text.
“Learning the meaning behind those customs and traditions,” Mr. Parmar said, “just feels that much more powerful.”
South Asian weddings were once primarily dictated by the parents, said Sonal Shah, a veteran event planner based in New York and Miami. Now, she said, while the couple will often involve their families in some aspects, the couples themselves are the ones making the decisions.
In 2018, Ms. Shah planned the New York City wedding of Dr. Amit Patel, 45, and Martin Fulton, 36, an oncologist and an entrepreneur who live in Franklin Lakes, N.J. The grooms changed from Tarun Tahilianisherwanis into tuxedos between their Hindu and Christian ceremonies.The couple served Indian-inspired drinks that incorporated cardamom and betel leaves and were named after Mariah Carey songs.
“We have had to find a new group of vendors that can adjust and mold themselves to what this new generation of South Asian couples really want,” Ms. Shah said.
Vikram Panicker, a senior event designer at Birch Event Design, based in New York, is one of those vendors. Couples no longer choose between a few preset designs, he said. They want everything, down to each type of flower, customized around their lives. The elephant statues and Rajasthani columns he once regularly used “are just gathering dust at the moment,” he said.
Bridal henna designs now incorporate locker numbers, city skylines and football mascots, said Neha Assar, an independent henna artist based in Los Angeles. “They want that American feel of, ‘This is me. This is where I grew up,’” she said.
And because these events are so personalized, they can be more expensive than going the traditional route. Ms. Shah said the celebrations she plans typically have budgets of $800,000 to $2 million.
These weddings are among the clearest examples of the upward mobility of South Asians in the United States, said Sanjoy Chakravorty, an author of “The Other One Percent: Indians in America.” Just two or three decades ago, South Asians were far less visible, “he said. Now, they are entrepreneurs, chief executives, doctors, politicians and lawyers.
These shifts are also not exclusive to the United States. In India, weddings — particularly among the upper class — are evolving, too, influenced by Bollywood movies and the lifestyles of famous actors like Ranveer Singh and Alia Bhatt. Those trends trickle down to the diaspora, Mr. Chakravorty said.
Weddings are “very much a display of status, and a method of seeking status,” he said.
Others see them differently.
“As we see more Indians in the media, there is this idea that Indian American culture is very monolithic that is itself changing,” said Amruta Godbole, 37, a lawyer in San Francisco whose weddings to the venture capitalist Sheel Mohnot, 41, took place at both Burning Man and a hacienda in Morelos, Mexico in September. “You can have an Indian wedding, you can be an Indian person, and that doesn’t have to mean one specific way of doing everything.”